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Navigating the Seasons of Change

By Barbara Quinn, RSCJ

Change is a constant. It is also difficult. What parent doesn’t know that as they watch children grow, seemingly overnight? Businesses and educational institutions are regularly faced with the need to reinvent themselves. Globally, we experience unprecedented paradigm shifts as technologies revolutionize our ways of thinking, the unpredictability of the environment casts the world into chaos, and international economies erupt like volcanoes! This ubiquitous tempest of change confronts us with crucial decisions. We can rebel against the inexorable evolution of life or we can muster the courage to embrace transformation as we search for the promise and name the peril that change holds. Such adaptability will exact relinquishment and even pain, but responding to the signs of the times can ultimately bear the seeds of a new and better way.

Conviction that new life can emerge as old forms die lies at the heart of the Paschal Mystery revealed and embodied in Jesus the Christ. The center of Jesus’ world was total obedience to God and God’s vision for all humanity. His radical commitment to God’s justice, peace, and reconciliation, to the marginalized and the poor, and to his claim of identification with God as God’s anointed One threatened those who clung to power and privilege, unleashing in them criticism, rejection, and a determination to kill him. Not only was God’s vision so central that Jesus was willing to die for it but, paradoxically, Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection revealed and celebrated the utter belief that love triumphs over hate, hope over despair, and life over death. And so the Risen One and the agenda of the Reign of God live on. We need not fear change if we hold fast to the One who has gone before us.

How do we respond to life’s changes? Will we hide in the safe shelter of the familiar or stay the course of transformation, trusting that wise change can lead to the fullness of God’s life?

Surely, our Catholic Church faces monumental shifts today that deeply impact the various roles and relationships within it. As we discern how the Spirit is calling us forward, we need to be willing to engage in a communal process: naming what is no longer adequate; calling forth gifts wherever and in whomever they are found; remaining faithful to the central vision of God’s hopes for our world.  United in this commitment, we will have the freedom, courage, and creativity to give birth to new expressions of God’s Reign today.

I would like to offer an example of one group’s dying and rising, that is, how the Sacred Heart Network of Schools in the United States, founded by the Society of the Sacred Heart, underwent a dramatic evolution in its relationship to lay colleagues. This example, I believe, is instructive for the work of transformation in the Church at large.

When the Society of the Sacred Heart came to the United States in1818, the Religious of the Sacred Heart (RSCJ) founded schools for young women and served as the primary administrators and teachers. Those were the “good old days” when the nuns were the ministry. The founders articulated deep spiritual principles, set rigorous academic standards, and established a way of life built on the primacy of relationships. St. Madeleine Sophie Barat, founder of the Society of the Sacred Heart, had the original vision of forming saintes savants—wise saints and holy scholars! This grounding vision impelled RSCJ to shape an education that cultivated both the contemplative and apostolic dimensions of life. It was the springtime of a new vision of education as schools sprang up across the country. And then came the slow but sure autumn season as the roots of this educational vision matured and deepened.

But the stark challenges of winter came, too, as the number of RSCJ in the schools dwindled. In the 1960s, Vatican II awakened the Church to the needs of the poor, to “read the signs of the times,” and to embrace the universal call to holiness. This was good news! But a new vision has new implications. A number of the RSCJ left the schools to serve the poor and to embrace other forms of educational ministries. In 1970, the U.S. province humbly faced the limitations of its existing model and admitted that it no longer had enough RSCJ to sponsor all their schools. Furthermore, they realized that before long there would not be a sufficient number of RSCJ educational administrators. The painful decision was made to close some schools. Lay colleagues, parents, and alums were not happy!  They felt a deep ownership of the schools and were outraged that their opinions went unheeded!

A committee of RSCJ agreed that they could never allow such “non- collaboration” to happen again. While recognizing the competence of their lay colleagues, the RSCJ needed to find a way to imbue the spirit and mission of Sacred Heart education in their lay colleagues so as to ensure fidelity to the original vision. Only then would new models of Sacred Heart education rest on a firm foundation. Lay colleagues enthusiastically embraced this partnership while recognizing their need for formation to the essential spirit of Sacred Heart education. Thus, the Goals and Criteria of Sacred Heart Schools were born in 1975. The goals state:

Schools of the Sacred Heart commit themselves to educate to…

… a personal and active faith in God;

… a deep respect for intellectual values;

… a social awareness which impels to action;

… the building of community as a Christian value;

… personal growth in an atmosphere of wise freedom.

 Criteria were articulated for each goal, giving the goals greater specificity and allowing for new emphases as times changed. Two additional elements were built into the process to ensure lay-religious partnership: a collegial process that would involve all constituencies of Sacred Heart schools in learning and living the Goals and Criteria  and a process of accountability to ensure that the Goals and Criteria were realized concretely. This would be enacted through a review of each school every five years. The relevance of these elements for an emerging Church is obvious and crucial.

The partnership between the Society of the Sacred Heart and its lay colleagues is robust. Among the 22 Sacred Heart schools in the United States, 17 are led by lay administrators. RSCJ and lay colleagues, including  trustees, regularly  participate in Formation to Mission programs that deepen understanding and foster renewal of the guiding impulse of Sacred Heart education: to form women—and now men —as wise saints and holy scholars prepared to serve a 21st century Church and world through the lens of the Goals and Criteria.

Change is constant. It is also difficult. But if we stay focused on God’s Reign, if we are humble enough to name what is no longer adequate, and if we trust that we have among us the gifts we need to go forward even if it means letting go of the familiar, we can be assured of the promise that new and deeper life will emerge. This is a choice. It is also the Gospel way! ■

BARBARA QUINN, RSCJ, is associate director of spiritual formation at the Boston College School of Theology and Ministry. This article first appeared in the Boston College C21 Resources magazine, Fall, 2013 edition. It is reprinted with permission from Boston College C21 Resources. See more from them at www.bc.edu/c21.